By Elaine Tan
After the setback of losing many precious scores and instruments in the flooding of the Dataran Merdeka, Dama Orchestra has dusted off the debris and settled into their new home in Bangsar. We sit on wobbly chairs in the corner of the small room as Dama’s resident soprano Tan Sao Suan, always smiling, talks about the life of a soprano.
The first thing you notice about Sao Suan is her pretty, flawlessly complexioned face, framed by lush long China doll hair. When she speaks, her voice is sweet and sprightly. Looking ever so young and fresh in casuals, she is almost unrecognisable from the cheongsam-clad songbird on stage that fans are used to seeing. The chanteuse has spent most of her life on stage and training her voice, yet has no diva-esque pretensions. Focussed and dedicated, patient and passionate, here is a Malaysian product one hopes will remain unsullied by success and age.
How did your relationship with Dama begin?
I was grand champion in the national classical singing competition for three years consecutively. The final year, Seng Chew (Dama Orchestra’s music director) heard me, and he said, oh my god, this girl has a pretty voice, why is she in Penang doing nothing? I was 18 or 19. He was curious whether I could sing shi dai qu… then he heard me sing a Chinese folksong for charity and contacted me.
For me, shi dai qu used to be songs that my mom sings. But now I have really gotten into it. When I started singing shi dai qu, I researched people like Li Xiang Lan. I studied her bio, watched her movies, listened to her songs. There were a lot of Russian vocal trainers in China in the 30’s and 60’s. Li Xiang Lan’s vocal teacher was a classically trained Russian.
When did you get into singing?
Very, very young! My mum tells me that even when I was five years old, I would listen to music and sing and dance all the time. I started vocal training at eight, I’m now 26. And I am totally a Buatan Malaysia; I have never been overseas for lessons – although I have done some short courses in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong.
Vocal training came first, then at 15 or so I start to learn operas. People say, singing have to learn meh? With instruments your learning shows, but singing is a really big subject, much bigger than any one instrument. The fees are very expensive too – as expensive as taking up medicine. The first lesson is how to breathe, not through the lungs but the diaphragm. You have to learn the basic mechanics of singing, to push the air out, to project the voice. The procedure takes many years to perfect.
Also, the voice is something you cannot train every day. The piano, I can practice that eight hours a day – I can practice it when I wake up. But the voice, it is different. It is one thing in the morning, different in the afternoon, totally different at night.
If you have a good technique, you don’t have to stick to any particular line of singing. For me, I like to discover the different lines. Like Dama is known for shi dai qu, but every year we do a Musical Sojourn concert. This time it’s very interesting because we’re singing musicals and singing in different languages. Memory, from the longest ever musical, CATS; and from Evita, Don’t Cry For Me Argentina; I will be singing a Filipino folksong, Dahil Sayo; Mein Shair To Nahi, a Hindi song; in Italian, Japanese, even Russian.
What is the difference between opera and pop songs?
In opera we use different breathing techniques and different interpretations. With pop songs you can just follow your heart. For example, when I sing musicals, the style is more on the words, more like talking; you have to feel the story, the background. For Memory, I have to be a cat. For Don’t Cry For Me, I have to be that elegant, glamorous woman. The Hindi songs, I have to research Bollywood styles, I have to learn the movement – but I can’t do the head thing lah.
I am Chinese educated, so when I sing Chinese songs, the pronunciation of the words already makes me feel I am doing my best, I can handle the words AND the melody AND the background of living. With Hindi, I am just guessing… it limits how far I can go with the song.
But I am the kind of person that likes to experience all music. You cannot keep on doing just what you want to do. You have to have variety, that way you can improve yourself. I like Bob Marley, his music is simple, simple lyrics, but it gets you going, not just poompah poompah.
I have been trying different things, but eventually, I will go back to my roots, which is classical singing… because I really appreciate it, because it is very difficult, because I really love opera. Hopefully one day I will have my own repertoire for classical concerts. I love Maria Callas, she keeps her own character. Even though she sings opera, she also sings other kinds of music.
I am not into the acting part of opera, just the singing. I am weird like that. I want to do concerts where I can sing the arias that I like. I sing from my heart and being Asian, it is hard for us to get into western roles. I want people to know Tan Soo Suan can sing, not to be known for this role or that. I want to sing but I want to be myself.
Also, the voice changes as you grow. At 20, 30 or 40, it sounds different. The voice is like the blooming of flowers… slowly to open and never to close… getting fatter and fatter.
Vocal chords are like a rubber band, when you stretch it too young, it can be painful, because you are not ready yet. Charlotte Church, coming out with such a mature voice at 13 or 14 is not really a good sign.
Her success is not because she can reach a high pitch, it’s because she knows how to sell herself, and she created a new style of singing when she used the low voice and high voice together. Sopranos, people think: you don’t come and sing mezzo ah, or you strain your voice! But a pop star can create different styles of singing.
She was born with a beautiful voice. But the difference between a classically trained voice and a pop star is the packaging. In the pop world, if you package yourself nicely, and your voice is acceptable, people will like it.
Classical is different. No matter how you package it, there is a standard of singing. Opera arias are technically demanding.
Opera has lasted for centuries. Why? Because it’s difficult. You don’t use a mike. Churches were built to allow the voice to be carried, in the days before mikes. Actually, I hate using mikes. Sound checks waste a lot of time. Once, we spent five hours just doing the sound check!
Can you make a decent living being a soprano in Malaysia?
(Laughs) What do you think? If you only write freelance, here in Malaysia, can you make a decent living? Survive? Depends on the individual – if you don’t have the money you don’t go to Coffee Bean, drink one coffee so expensive, correct or not? Then you go mamak stalls loh.
I am kind of like Dama’s resident soprano, but in Penang, I am still a full time music teacher, teaching vocal training and piano.
I am very happy about the way classical music is developing here. We have the MPO and the beautiful Petronas hall. These things tell me that I should continue on the road I have travelled so far. Of course, I wish they supported local singers more. We classical singers are really waiting for the chance to work with them. When they stage operas, they usually only give the small roles to Malaysians, especially if you haven’t trained or studied overseas.
Anyway, I am the type that can only focus on one thing at a time. Like this interview, I come in early and wait, preparing myself for it. I cannot do something else and then oh, here you are, interview, now I go. I have to do this show well, and then I try and do the next thing well. I would love to perform at the Dewan Petronas but if I did that, I wouldn’t be like, now that I’ve performed there already, where should I go next, overseas? No, I don’t think like that… I just do one thing at a time. I don’t even know what I am going to do next year. I just concentrate on what I am doing now.
First Published: 12.12.2003 on Kakiseni